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Farmers told restraint now means water later

The U.S. Government asks Klamath Basin farmers to limit irrigation to avoid forced cutbacks as drought sets in
Saturday, April 09, 2005

If Klamath Basin farmers voluntarily reduce irrigation by 15 percent this year, they may avoid forced water cutbacks that dried up fields in the drought year of 2001, the U.S. government said Friday.

Although that may seem modest in light of a looming drought that has parched much of the state, it comes atop other water limits spreading across the basin on the Oregon-California line.

Environmental groups say farmers will get off easily compared with fish and wildlife.

But some farmers face a very tough year. Two reservoirs on the east side of the Klamath Basin -- Clear Lake and Gerber reservoirs -- have dropped to such critically low levels that endangered fish may become trapped in puddles.

The small irrigation districts that depend on those reservoirs will receive less than a third of their average supply. Some will turn to emergency wells for water, but others will run out.

"It means no water -- it's that simple," said John Nichols, manager of the Langell Valley Irrigation District. "It's going to be a brutal year."

The Klamath water plan outlined Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation offers an early glimpse at how officials will balance water demand against drought gripping the state. Snow in mountains around Klamath holds 59 percent less moisture than the average for this time of year.

The basin is one of the most closely watched in the state because federal protections for fish in 2001 led to an emotional blowup when the government restricted water to about 1,400 farms in the 240,000-acre Klamath Project.

Water supplies this year are based mainly on early projections of river flows into Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon's largest lake, which stores water for most of the project.

Wildlife refuges in Klamath will come up short. Many of the refuges, waystations for waterfowl migrating south in fall, lie at the end of the basin's network of canals and depend on runoff from farms for their water.

They face reductions of about 40 percent from the average water deliveries they have received during similarly dry years since 1961.

Environmental groups said that's out of line, because farms other than those on the east side face cutbacks of only 7 percent below what they have received on average during the same years.

But farmers also have joined in a government water bank that pays them to leave fields dry or pump water from wells, freeing up for fish the irrigation water.

So they committed to dropping their demand even before Friday's request to limit their water take by 15 percent, said Dave Sabo, manager of the Klamath Project.

"I think you've got people who are pretty shook up," Sabo said. "There are people who are still terrified from what happened in 2001. Those who got through that are just starting to recover, and now they see another drought."

He said asking them to voluntarily cut their consumption by 15 percent should ensure Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River do not fall below levels required for endangered fish this summer.

If the lake and river were to fall below those levels, water to farms would have to be cut off. The voluntary reduction allows farmers to take action themselves rather than have it forced on them in a way that might hit some farmers much harder than others, Sabo said.

But Bob Hunter of WaterWatch of Oregon said little has been done to bring the basin's excessive demands for water in line with its supply.

"The irrigators are receiving, if you factor in the water bank, as much or more than they ever did in this water year type in the past," he said. "It'd be nice if mother nature gave us a break, but we could do better planning, too."

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

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